There is a UNESCO World Heritage site in Southwest France that blends the old and the new in a picture-perfect manner.
Perched on the hill overlooking the new town stands the awe-inspiring Medieval walled city of old Carcassonne.
If you have never been to a walled city then you should be adding it to your future travel plans. It is a very unique experience.
Where is it?
Why would you go?
Why wouldn’t you want to see the largest, intact walled city in Europe? UNESCO certainly thinks it’s worth a visit which makes it one of the world’s great locations for travel photography.
The original hilltop fortifications date back to Roman times but the current twin-walled version was constructed around the 13th Century. Today it is one of the most impressive sites to be found in Southwest France.
How much time do you need there?
Two or three days gives you plenty of time to explore the walled city, and the impressive chocolate shops in the new town. It is a place for carefree wandering and magnificent scenery.
It is also a great place for a break if you are travelling from Barcelona to Paris and so much nicer than just another big city like the neighbouring Toulouse.
We spent a single night there thinking we would see the walls and be ready to move on the next morning. Unfortunately, we had to leave the next day as we would have loved another day to further explore the local area and admire the views.
How do you get there?
Carcassonne has an airport a few kilometres from town with shuttle services and taxis available. Flights arrive from many European cities.
Trains are also available arriving from a number of major cities in the south of France with connections with high-speed links to the rest of Western Europe. Taxis can take you to town or it is an easy 20-minute walk.
We were road tripping and strongly recommend driving in this part of the world. Car hire is comparatively cheap and there are so many amazing villages and sights that would be missed if you travelled by any other means.
It is easy to navigate the town, with small streets and very little traffic. Parking is available at all hotels and also outside the gates of the city.
What are the “highlights”?
Obviously, there is one stand-out highlight but there is more to this town than the famous walls.
Do not limit yourself to a daytime drive-by visit. To miss seeing this place of a night means you are seriously missing out on the spectacular.
Four of our top things to do or see are:
- The Cité de Carcassonne– a Medieval fortress settlement featuring over three kilometres of walls and 52 towers. The chance to get a true sense of what life would have been like hundreds of years ago is a rare experience. Wandering the winding, paved streets gives you this opportunity and more.
They have jousting demonstrations between the walls daily and although a touristy experience, it adds to the atmosphere and helps you feel part of history.
- Night around the walls – well yeah, technically it is still the same as point one but the place is so very different when experienced at night.
You will also find it is home to the majority of Venice’s pigeon population.
It takes on an almost eerie feel. You can’t help but keep looking over your shoulder when you walk around at night. Not worried about local criminals but just feeling that there must be ghosts around a place with this much history.
- Visit the Lower City – the new city, which is across the river and below the great walled city, is a lovely place for a bit of exploring. A large central park area is lined with shops, restaurants, and hotels.
We couldn’t help but experience something special from one of the master chocolatiers plying their trade in the shops around town. More art than food but that didn’t stop us from eating after we admired our treats.
- The scenery – all eyes lead to the top of the hill and the magnificent walls. But don’t forget to look at the view lower down as well. All around the river area is also stunning and take some time to just sit and take in not only the beauty of the scene but also soak in the history and actually experience the world.
What can you eat?
This region is famous for two dishes. One you will know and the other maybe not so much.
The dish you not have heard of, and the true local specialty is Cassoulet. A hearty meal named after the earthenware pot it is cooked in called the cassole.
Typically containing pork sausage, goose and duck meat, pork skin, and white beans the cassoulet can be found in many restaurants around town. But if you want to try the local specialty then I suggest finding one of the small, hole-in-the-wall places in the side alleys inside the walls. Some even will give you a sample tasting.
The second specialty of the region is foie gras. So if you want a chance to experience this delicacy then why not do it in the region that claims ownership of the original invention?
The region also has a reputation for producing wonderful wines, but then again, which part of France doesn’t? But the best treat has to come from experiencing some of the most intricate chocolate work you are likely to see.
Carcassonne has a number of master chocolatiers, each trying to outdo the next with colour, taste, and outlandish designs. You are selling yourself short if you leave town without checking some of these masterpieces. And let’s see if any of you can leave without sampling the wares, I bet not!
Where should you stay?
There is a range of accommodation available in and around the walled city, ranging from small B&Bs to historic hotels. A special treat is to stay at one the of hotels inside the walls, a chance to stay in a 700-year-old building with all the mod cons is an experience you will not find every day.
But staying inside the walls is not cheap and it is worth exploring your options outside the walls.
We stayed at a nice little place called the Hotel Aragon. Cheap but clean and with one of the best views we have had anywhere. As you can see from the photo it’s not a very long walk to the gate of the city.
How is the walkability?
The walled city is on the top of a hill, it’s that simple. But it’s nothing like scaling Everest and the mere sight of this staggering site will make you forget how far or steep the walk may be anyway.
Inside the walls, the roads are mostly paved or cobbled which means you should watch your step and wear comfy shoes. Leave the platforms and heels in the suitcase (and you too ladies!). There is plenty to explore in here and you could walk for hours.
Outside the walls, you find sealed roads, footpaths, and trails through the parkland. The area is quite flat and the views are well worth having an aimless wander. It is not far from the top of the hill to the centre of the new town and the walk is scenic.
Spend some time around the streets of the new town, especially chocolate hunting. You need something to keep your strength up with all this walking.
It’s just our opinion.
When UNESCO suggests somewhere is worth seeing then you know you should probably take a look. We only found out about Carcassonne while I was researching possible overnight stops between Marseilles and meeting friends in Toulouse.
Let me tell you if is a much nicer spot than either of those cities.
This place has something you won’t see in many places around the world. It is also one of the few places where I could actually feel the history.
We would love to go back and give it more than a single night. It really does deserve your attention for longer than that.
It is not every day you can experience a fully functioning and well-maintained international treasure that dates back to medieval times, but this place is right there with the best of them. Try to go beyond the big cities and experience regional areas like this. It’s worth the extra travel.
Have you visited a Medieval walled city anywhere? Where was it and what did you think?